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Debate club vs. the rockstar in Iowa

​Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and fomrer US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley listen to a question as they participate in the Republican presidential debate hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and fomrer US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley listen to a question as they participate in the Republican presidential debate hosted by CNN at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

REUTERS/Mike Segar

To kick off the final debate before the first GOP primary, Chris Christie bowed out of the race – and he wasn’t exactly graceful. The former New Jersey governor was caught mocking his remaining Republican rivals, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, who took to the CNN stage last night.

The debate kicked off with the only question that matters if either candidate is going to be seen as a viable candidate after the Iowa primary: Why should Iowa voters see either of them as a better alternative to the front-runner, Trump? In response, DeSantis threw punches at Haley, while Haley cited her credentials, directed viewers to a website that fact-checks DeSantis, and cast herself as more electable than the former president.


From there, like a relic from a bygone era, the two actually debated … policy. They discussed everything from fiscal conservatism to school choice. Haley blamed Trump for ballooning the deficit and reiterated her position that the GOP should avoid politicizing abortion. Meanwhile, DeSantis focused on intertwining illegal immigration with crime and cast Haley’s positions as left of center. They both called out Trump for avoiding the debate stage – with Haley specifically condemning his actions on Jan. 6.

On foreign policy, the two competed to see who could support Israel more. They diverged most on Ukraine, where only Haley expressed a willingness to continue US support.

But Haley, who had made promising advances in the polls in recent weeks, needed to convince Iowans that she was a viable candidate to defeat Trump. Instead, she focused on defaming DeSantis, which could hurt her vote count and presidential prospects when the primary season kicks off on Monday.

Meanwhile … across town at the Trump town hall, the former president was playing all his greatest hits to a crowd of adoring fans. Think Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden when the Long Island Association of Step-Dads is in town. When asked what new efforts he would pursue in a second term, he said he'd finish building the wall, reimplement the “remain in Mexico” migration policy, and expand US energy production (eagle-eyed Daily readers will note these are not new efforts).

Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump participates in a Fox News Channel town hall ahead of the caucus vote in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 10, 2024. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Trump called his ongoing legal imbroglio a “witch hunt” and election interference. He gave a couple of shout outs to pals like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. He hammered Ron “DeSanctimonious” for his COVID policy and implied he wears shoe lifts. He gave a dubious anecdote about an unnamed Fox News employee who thanked him for saving 2 million lives by repealing Roe v. Wade (no tears this time).

It was classic Trump, in his environment, ripping out the hits.

The audience seemed to respond most strongly to Trump's comments on immigration, rapidly emerging as Biden’s most intractable vulnerability. He pointed to New York City Mayor Eric Adams' conflicts with the Biden administration over the influx of migrants in response to a question about ending sanctuary cities and claimed Democratic administrations in sanctuary cities would soon end the policies on their own because of the severity of the crisis.

The most challenging query came from a voter who asked Trump to endorse an extreme pro-life position and questioned why he blamed pro-life politicians for recent Republican losses in states where abortion was on the ballot. Trump had a straightforward answer: because they lost. If Republicans keep losing, he said, Democrats can reinstate the status quo under Roe v. Wade. He refused to endorse an absolute abortion ban, and said he aimed to please the most people he could to end the debate on a divisive issue.

Trump did try out at least one new number: After previously claiming he would only be a dictator for one day should he return to office, he said he now needs two – one to seal the border and one to unleash the oil pumps. How many days will he need by November?

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